Selling Church-Owned land to an Affordable Housing Developer

In the first edition of Making Housing Happen, Jill Shook introduces the model of “building affordable housing on church owned land” by telling the story of Sister Elaine Sanchez and their congregation’s unexpected seven-year journey to gain the approval from an extremely NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) neighborhood and city council. They didn’t want to be developers, so they sold their land to an affordable housing developer that shared their dream.

Today award-winning affordable housing sits on what was their congregation’s six acres in an upscale neighborhood of San Jose, California. Council members and neighbors that fought the project now look to the church as the experts and have come to love and embrace and employ their low income neighbors. This story, which I have included below, is only mentioned in the new edition of Making Housing Happen in the Part II Tangible Structures section of the book.

I have included the story here from the first edition for your encouragement and inspiration:

A congregation in northern California is worth noting for their use of land. With families knocking on their convent door to find shelter, they knew God was calling them to build affordable housing. But unlike First United Methodist, this small congregation, the Sisters of the Holy Family, knew that God also was not calling them to build or manage housing. As I sat in the convent, interviewing Sister Elaine Sanchez, she explained the structure they set up to provide housing consistent with their mission to families and the poor. They did their research, found a nonprofit developer and property management company who shared their vision: Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition (MPHC). Selling them their six acres adjacent to their convent set them free from legal obligations for the management of the project. Once it was approved, their part was only that of a religious community of women loving their new neighbors.

This journey took Sister Elaine her into the public and civic arena, where her faith was tested and witnessed. Because their property was smack in the middle of an upscale Fremont neighborhood, the approval and the predevelopment process was extended to seven years due to opposition from the city council and the neighborhood. Fears abounded. As each objection was countered, new objections arose. Statistics didn’t influence them. They finally wore them down from a legal standpoint. They had to approve the project or face a lawsuit.

Strengthen by their chosen partnership, standing with them through those long seven years, they were finally granted approval. Sister Elaine sums up her journey with John 5:30, “I can do nothing by myself…because my aim is to do not my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.” These became words of comfort as well as a source of pain, uncertainty, struggle as she followed that place where the heart of God beats within her. This process also deepened the Sisters commitment to their mission. Today the city council recognizes their effort as having created one of the best examples of affordable housing. What once stirred heated debate and political strife also earned the prestigious Gold Nugget Award for its design of the 101–unit apartments for families and seniors. Now the city looks to their church to sit on committees that deal with affordable housing issues.

Sister Elaine’s life has not been the same since God called her into affordable housing.